Education Editors' Vox

Harassment in Astronomy and Planetary Science

New data reveal the prevalence of gender- and race-related harassment in astronomy and planetary sciences.


Public consciousness of the stunning lack of diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, including the Earth and space sciences, has grown considerably in recent years. The academic research community within these STEM fields faces daunting challenges in dealing with the fact that our community does not have the benefit of the full representation of more than half of the population: Women and minorities are underrepresented. Without such full representation, the scientific community has serious gaps in access to knowledge, experience, and creativity that limit the forward progress of science. Research over the past few years has highlighted a range of potential factors that lead to a perpetuation of this lack of diversity as well as consequences for individuals and communities.

Identifying and quantifying the consequences of bias for the conduct of science within the Earth and space sciences has been a critical theme of research published this year. Indeed, a study of the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) own data on journal reviewing demonstrated a gender bias in who was being invited to review papers [Lerback and Hanson, 2017], which as an opportunity gap has potential consequences throughout an individual’s career.

Further, just this month Nature Astronomy published a special section of articles on gender equity in astronomy that shows that astronomical papers by women tend to be cited approximately 10% less than those by men [Caplar et al., 2017] and that women are underrepresented on planetary science spacecraft mission teams [Rathbun, 2017].

Moreover, Prescod-Weinstein [2017] highlights the importance of acknowledging and confronting the fact that individuals at the intersections of multiple underrepresented groups (e.g., minority women) have distinctly different experiences than singly underrepresented groups (e.g., white women or minority men).

Double jeopardy in astronomy and planetary science: Women of color face greater risks of gendered and racial harassment by Kathryn Clancy, Katharine Lee, Erica Rodgers, and Christina Richey published today in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, investigates the workplace climate of astronomers and planetary scientists for a group at one of these intersections: women of color.

The study found that in our community “40% of women of color reported feeling unsafe in the workplace as a result of their gender or sex, and 28% of women of color reported feeling unsafe as a result of their race,” which is higher than any other group in their survey.

Beyond those startling numbers of people feeling unsafe where they work, study, attend meetings, a further consequence that they found is that both women of color (18%) and white women (12%) did not attend professional events (e.g., conferences, meetings) because they did not feel safe. Let those numbers sink in: A significant number of people in the astronomy and planetary science community do not feel safe where they work for fear of harassment.

Everyone who works in this lofty field deserves to be treated with dignity. We diminish the value of our endeavors if they are not accomplished with respect for the scientists as well as the science. Identifying and tracking factors that impact our community and its individuals are necessary and important, yet ultimately insufficient, steps toward addressing the issues of bias, discrimination, and harassment.

Professional societies such as AGU, the American Astronomical Society (AAS) and many others are working toward concrete ways to help protect community members and positively shift the culture. This past spring the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine also convened a workshop to address the problem of sexual harassment. However, there is clearly much more to do, and it will take each and every person in our community to engage in improving that culture in substantive ways.

I asked the authors of the paper some questions to further understand the context around the study and the important takeaway messages for our community.

How and why did you create the survey that is the source of data for the study?

Erica Rodgers (ER): A team of anthropologists and physical scientists joined efforts to take the pulse of astronomical and planetary science community members’ experiences of behaviors and situations that cause members to feel marginalized in their community of practice. These negative encounters lead to a workplace climate that is uncomfortable and unpleasant for members.

Our team conducted a survey to better understand how many members of the astronomical and planetary science communities encounter negative language, feel unsafe, or experience harassment related to gender, gender identity, race and ethnicity, and ability-status. Further, who initiates these encounters: supervisors, peers, or others?

Understanding that the science communities targeted in our survey are not the only communities that experience negative encounters in the workplace, our team reached out for support from the LGBT+Physicists group, who administered a previous workplace climate survey conducted by the American Physical Society’s Forum of Graduate Student Affairs. Our survey questions are therefore based on this previous survey in order to synergize efforts across the physical sciences.

Our team hopes the results of this research will stimulate broader conversations regarding the workplace climate of those in the astronomical and planetary sciences. We believe this research has enormous benefit to the disciplines, as creating a safer space for research will encourage more diverse people to pursue science, and more diverse perspectives.

What were the challenges involved with the data, and what did you learn from the data?

Katharine Lee (KL): The data for this study of harassment and hostile climate were difficult to deal with at times. Every time I encountered a survey response where someone felt unsafe or reported being verbally or physically harassed, I heard them. Every person who participated was important for this research. I want to thank everyone who participated in the study, and I want to support them by respectfully reporting their experiences.

Although the numbers for hostile workplace climate may appear small at times, when you put the numbers into context it is clear that people with under-represented identities are experiencing a disproportionate amount of harassment. This was further highlighted by the incredibly low proportion of people who were not cis-gendered, straight, and white.

From what we can tell based on survey responses, the field of astronomy and planetary science has so few people in these marginalized groups that we were unable to statistically analyze their experiences without potentially “outing” them when we do cross-tabulations. I am saddened that people are excluded from a scientific field they love, and I think society misses out on creative solutions and diverse perspectives when a discipline is not purposefully inclusive.

We wonder why the discipline struggles to achieve the diversity that can be found in other fields. Why have so many people in astronomy and planetary science accepted this hostile climate? How many people have to experience verbal or physical abuse or feel unsafe at their workplace before this problem is addressed? I hope the quantitative and eventually qualitative parts of our work help shift the field toward a more welcoming, less hostile environment where science and the scientists can thrive.

What can we learn from this study focused on primarily on the United States about the experiences of multiply marginalized astronomers and planetary scientists throughout the international community?

Kathryn Clancy (KC): Our priority for this study was to understand domestic minorities. The American sciences have seen an increase in the number of international scholars, and these scientists are definitely underserved by our current system. However, we also want to acknowledge that the rise in international scholars who are not white has relaxed our vigilance around issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity for domestic minorities—African-Americans, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, Latinx, and others—who have a historical, systemic experience of oppression in the United States. It is for this reason that we prioritized the study of American women of color as well as women generally in our assessment of the presence of and effects of harassment in astronomy and planetary science.

Bias, discrimination, and harassment are present throughout our society. How do the results of your study of harassment in astronomy and planetary science compare with other workplaces or society as a whole?

KC: As far as we can tell, our findings are comparable with many other workplaces. There are many different methods researchers employ to learn about counterproductive workplace behaviors; some have a tendency to lead to higher numbers, and others to lower numbers.

The fact that we used the terms verbal and physical harassment probably means our study is underreporting the prevalence of this in astronomy and planetary science: Few victims of harassment are comfortable naming their experience as such, even when their experience clearly fits the definition.

At the same time, both qualitative and anecdotal reports of astronomy and planetary science workplaces worry us: It seems as though there is a culture of bullying, intimidation, and rudeness that is not ubiquitous to scientific workplaces, let alone workplaces more generally. It seems as though scientists in these fields need to have some frank discussions about whether the climate that has been created over time in the name of rigor is actually one that limits productivity and scientific progress.

But the main takeaway we want astronomers and planetary scientists to come away with after reading our paper is that they are not special. That is, scientists are humans, which means they bring their lived experiences and identities to the workplace. Workplaces may vary in the extent of abuse or harassment, but their presence should be enough for us to want to do something about it.

Several years ago you published a study on harassment in disciplines that do field work [Clancy et al., 2014]. Given that many planetary scientists incorporate field work into their research and both astronomers and planetary scientists travel and work in remote locations, what kind of lessons can be drawn from looking at both of these studies collectively?

KC: These spaces are all workplaces, and we do a disservice to scientific progress when we consider them vacation spots, ways to get away from campus, or places to transgress normal boundaries of professional or ethical behavior.

Can the results of this study—focused on the increased risks of harassment for women of color compared relative to white women—be generalized to individuals with other multiple marginalities?

KC: Yes and no. Social identity isn’t just an additive process, where the more underrepresented identities you hold the harder things get in exactly the same way. You need to consider power and the ways in which these identities interact in your varying social and professional spaces. You need to consider the historical context of the identity—being gay, non-binary, African-American, or female aren’t the same thing.

Social scientists rarely like to generalize one particular sample to somehow represent a larger number of humans. Rather, we prefer to build evidence by collecting data on multiple, diverse samples, understanding them in context, and then comparing them.

What practical things can we do to confront and eradicate these kinds of harassment in the scientific community?

KC: You can stop relying on Title IX and Title VII compliance to save you. What I mean here is that you can work with your department or unit to develop an extralegal set of expectations for professional conduct. Stop asking lawyers or your universities to determine what level of behavior is acceptable—consider that “lesser” transgressions might still lead to a hostile climate and drive great people out of science. Have real and swift consequences for perpetrators. Should you have due process for all alleged perpetrators? Yes. But you should also, if that process is followed and the situation serious (which it very often is), be able to fire them.

You need to ask yourself, What kind of climate do I want in my department, unit, or university? What behaviors are currently the norm where I work, and which of those are counter to the climate I think would be healthier? Then you need to work with the perpetrators to eliminate those behaviors. You need to work with leaders to get them to help set the appropriate norms, and enforce them.

Finally, those in power need to stop trying to manage the way these cases shake out. Forcing a victim to report only in some sort of socially acceptable way, making them feel as though they are doing it wrong, or otherwise trying to control the message will undoubtedly re-traumatize them. Secrecy just makes an incident messier when it does get out. If a victim wants to come forward via social media, or at a bar, or in a faculty meeting, get over it. The compassionate and respectful thing to do is to reach out and figure out how to help them, not have a problem with how they chose to tell their story.

What efforts have been ongoing in the fields of planetary science and astronomy to mitigate harassment?

Christina Richey (CR): Discussions of harassment used to be relegated to the women’s lunch, limiting their impact. Now AAS, as well as AGU and other large professional societies, have increased their awareness and willingness to openly discuss harassment, including having large-scale town halls and workshops. In addition, the AAS has used large signage at conferences and hotline phone numbers, and has even created a Task Force that worked to update its Ethics Code for membership to ensure a safe and welcoming environment within its professional society for all.

Federal agencies have also been discussing the issue, and how to deal with principle investigators who are violating Titles IX, VII, etc., and many have their own reporting mechanisms. These early initiatives are not perfect, but they are a start.

What do you believe makes this group a unique team of investigators?

CR: Our group is a mixture of social and physical scientists, with a fully mutual respect for the work each and every one of us does. Erica Rodgers really led the development of the survey, Katharine Lee did a fantastic job in analyzing the data, Kathryn Clancy has really done a great job at interpreting the results and writing the paper, and I’ve been the main driving force for recruitment, resources from the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and AAS, and dissemination of information and results within this particular community.

The unique mixture of social scientists, physical scientists, and the resources we each brought to the table really allowed us to tackle this research in a highly impactful way, and I’m beyond proud of this team and all the work each and every single one of us have put into this paper. There’s so much background work that was done in preparation for this release of results, and much of what we’ve been doing has been on our time, beyond our regular jobs as scientists, researchers, and program managers.

—Steven A. Hauck II, Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets; email: [email protected]

With thanks to Kathryn Clancy and Katharine Lee (University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign), Erica Rodgers (Space Science Institute), and Christina Richey (American Astronomical Society Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy) for their contributions.